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Issue No: 132
August 22, 2009

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Human Rights monitor

First Commemoration of World Humanitarian Day

IN 2008, 260 humanitarian aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in violent attacks. This toll is the highest on record. The overall number of attacks against aid workers has risen steeply over the past three years, with an annual average almost three times higher than the previous nine years. Relative rates of attacks per numbers of aid workers in the field have also increased by 61 percent. The 2008 fatality rate for international aid workers exceeds that of UN peacekeeping troops.

On 19 August and for the first time, the international community paid tribute to the brave humanitarian workers who devote their time and energy to come to the rescue of innocent victims of war and natural catastrophes across the world.

To honour all humanitarians and increase public understanding of humanitarian assistance activities worldwide, the United Nations General Assembly has chosen to dedicate the 19th of August to commemorate World Humanitarian Day.

On this day we will pause to remember the hundreds of UN and non-governmental organization workers who have lost their lives while carrying out their duties and to acknowledge the ongoing work of humanitarian staff.

Globally, this event reminds us of the major dilemma facing humanitarian agencies around the world - how do we meet the life-or-death needs of the world's most vulnerable people while making sure those who provide that help are kept safe?

Why 19 August?
Six years ago, on 19 August 2003, the United Nations Office in Iraq was bombed and 22 people lost their lives. Among them was Sergio Vieira de Mello, at that time the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Iraq. While there have been many other fatal incidents involving humanitarian personnel the General Assembly decided to use the anniversary of this incident as World Humanitarian Day.

The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted in its Plenary Session on 11th December 2008, the Swedish sponsored Omnibus Resolution on “Strengthening of the Coordination of Emergency Humanitarian Assistance of the United Nations”, that carried the historic decision by the world body, to designate the 19th August as World Humanitarian Day to honour all humanitarian and the United Nations and associated personnel who have lost their lives in the cause of duty and those who have worked in the promotion of the humanitarian cause. The Resolution invites all Member States, the United Nation system, within existing resources, as well as other international organizations and non-governmental organizations to observe the day annually in an appropriate manner. This is a major historic landmark for the Humanitarian Sphere and a great gain for all victims of armed conflict.

As a background to this landmark resolution, the family of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the late Special Representative of the Secretary General in Iraq, deeply moved by the tragic bombing of the Headquarters of United Nations in Baghdad on 19th August 2003 that killed Sergio and 21 of his humanitarian colleagues, resolved to work towards having the day recognized as a befitting tribute to all humanitarian personnel. In 2004 Madame Annie Vieira de Mello the widow of Sergio initiated discussions with key personalities in the United Nations and a number of governments to designate the day as the World Humanitarian Day. Based on this concept, in early April 2008 the Board of the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation prepared a draft Resolution to be sponsored and adopted by the General Assembly designating 19th August as World Humanitarian Day. France, Switzerland, Japan and Brazil, contacted with the draft Resolution, agreed to co-sponsor it. They led its long and extensive debate and revision in the General Assembly. The family of Sergio and the Board of the Foundation remained engaged with following up the process. Eventually the draft Resolution was folded by the co-sponsors into the omnibus Swedish draft Resolution that was adopted by the General Assembly on 11th December.

The family of Sergio Vieira Mello supported by the Board of the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation is deeply grateful to all the Member States for adopting the historic Resolution and to the Governments of France, Switzerland, Japan, Brazil and Sweden for co-sponsoring the Resolution. The Board is committed to working closely with all governments, the United Nations, International Organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations to give the day a meaningful observance every year.

In its Plenary Session on 11th December 2008, the General Assembly adopted the Swedish sponsored Omnibus Resolution on “Strengthening of the Coordination of Emergency Humanitarian Assistance of the United Nations”. The resolution included the decision to designate 19 August as World Humanitarian Day to honour all humanitarian, UN and associated personnel who have lost their lives in the cause of duty and those who have worked in the promotion of the humanitarian cause. The resolution invites all member states, as well as NGOs and other international organizations to observe the day annually in an appropriate manner.

The General Assembly instructed that the Day be marked "within existing resources" which means no additional staff or other items have been budgeted for the day. For 2010 and beyond it is anticipated that World Humanitarian Day will be used to focus on particular humanitarian themes, such as the following:

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), world hunger is projected to reach a historic high in 2009, with just over a billion people going hungry every day. Almost all of the world's undernourished live in developing countries. In Asia and the Pacific, an estimated 642 million people suffer from chronic hunger (equivalent to about half the population of China). In sub-Saharan Africa that figure is 265 million (more than the population of Indonesia, which is the fourth most populous nation on earth); in Latin America and the Caribbean 53 million; in the Near East and North Africa 42 million. In comparison, the number of people going hungry in developed countries is 15 million in total.

Refugees and displaced people
Tens of millions of people around the world have been forcibly displaced, both within their own countries and across international borders. There are 15.2 million refugees, people who have been forced to flee their own countries due to violence and war. At least 26 million have been displaced within their own countries by conflict or other forms of violence. Millions more are forcibly displaced within their own countries each year by natural disasters and other causes. This number is expected to rise still further in the coming years, at least in part in the context of climate change.

In 2008 more than 9 million children died before their fifth birthday. Most of these children lived in developing countries and died from a disease or a combination of diseases that could easily have been prevented or treated antibiotics for pneumonia, or a simple mix of water, salt and sugar for diarrhoea. Malnutrition still contributes to more than a third of these deaths. Almost half of the persons of concern to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) are children.

Water and access to sanitation
Every year, 1.8 million people die from diarrhoeal diseases. Getting water and sanitation supplies and services to victims of disasters and conflicts is a top priority for humanitarian workers. Ninety percent of deaths in children under the age of five occur in developing countries.

Gender-based violence
Women and girls are the victims of gender-based violence, including sexual violence. In many places, men and boys are also victims of sexual violence, but this is often not reported. Many are abducted to serve as sex slaves; pregnant women are physically assaulted; and many women and girls have been infected with HIV/AIDS.


Source: UN Observers/Radio Netherlands Worldwide.


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